I’ve been doing some repenting lately. Like many of you I have listened to the podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” with a mixture of dread, relief, revulsion, and reluctant self-perception.
One of the themes the podcast deals with is that of “deconstruction.” It is one of those words that can mean almost anything but which always weighs something. At its worst, “deconstruction” is cynical and destructive; the theological equivalent of setting the building on fire as you walk out the door.
But at its best, “deconstruction” is really just a matter of repentance, of re-thinking our convictions, practices, and assumptions. This repentance is an effort to scrape off all the layers of paint, to consult the blueprints, to find the place where tradition stopped serving us and started doing us a disservice and to camp out there in that painful place.
Listening to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” has forced me to grapple with some things that I didn’t want to. Furnace Brook has been a fairly healthy church and I have never been a narcissist. Things could have been so much worse, but that doesn’t change the fact that I allowed myself and our church to be pulled in some unwholesome directions, directions that would have led to bad destinations had God, in his grace, not graciously thwarted us. And every step I've taken down that dismal path is a matter of sin. And if it’s sin, what can I do but confess, repent, and seek grace?
I have more processing to do, but here are three things that I earnestly repent of, after having listened to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” and carefully reflecting on its lessons.
I repent of doing ministry in a way that required the hardening of my heart.
Don’t get me wrong - there is no way that you can do ministry without your heart getting wounded and if you want to go on doing ministry for any length of time you must cultivate a resilient heart. And a resilient heart, one that finds a way to keep going cheerfully when a close friend has abandoned you at a critical moment, may look much like a hard heart. But here’s the difference: a resilient heart says “the importance of the mission means that this pain is worth feeling.” but a hard heart says “the importance of the mission means that this person is not worth the pain he causes me to feel.”
And I was being pulled into a way of doing church that said that the ends justify the means, that growing the church and reaching more unbelievers was so important that if doing so meant hurting or abandoning sheep in your flock that was just a sad sort of collateral damage. I was told, essentially, that to be a good, visionary leader I would have to harden my heart.
I repent of that.
I repent of all of the energy and concern I put into my platform and of thinking that all that platform building was somehow “ministry.”
It pains me to admit this, but there have been times when I wondered if I was wasting my ministry here in a place where I would have little opportunity to grow my platform and attract the attention of influential people. Please forgive me. At my best I was trying to grow my platform so that I could give Jesus the advantage of that platform. But at my worst I thought Jesus needed the advantage of my platform.
I repent of that.
I repent of my fundamental dissatisfaction with “mere” church.
Here’s what I mean by “mere” church: a group of believers who do worship, community, and mission together. That’s it. And it’s enough for Jesus, but it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted events that drew lots of people to attend and left them talking about how great it was. I wanted each subsequent event to be better attended than the previous one. I wanted innovative programs and glossy brochures and a carefully crafted narrative and lots and lots of branding. I wanted a sense of momentum and for other pastors to be envious of what was happening at my church. And, yes, I know how pathetic this all sounds.
I repent of that.
And I suspect that I have more repenting to do, but this is where I am tonight, on the cusp of a new year. I’m embarrassed and rueful, but I’m also full of hope and resolve. God has shown me extraordinary grace in bringing me to repentance when he could have brought me down. I take heart from this and choose to go into the new year aspiring to a greater holiness than I’ve ever known before, walking in the light cast by the bonfire of all my discarded ambitions.
I absolve you. It’s in my power to do it and I’m glad to do it. I’m offering you Christmas absolution.
That guilt you feel about your inability to make the season perfect, to purchase, wrap, and present in time the just-right gift to everyone on your list: I absolve you.
That sense of nagging unease you feel about trying to squeeze a month’s worth of delight, wonder, rest, and cozy into a couple of days of vacation: I absolve you.
That anxiety you feel about whether or not your purchases are local enough, sustainable enough, and virtuous enough, about whether or not you are doing enough for the economy, I absolve you of all the things that produce it.
The pressure you feel to perform the part at Christmas, and the guilt you feel when you fail to, the way you wince when you hear the mirthless ring of your own “ho, ho, ho,” I absolve you of that too.
Absolution is forgiveness adjacent, but it is not the same. Both absolution and forgiveness have to do with wrongdoing and the moral account, but with a distinction.
If there is a person in the house whose job it is to water the tree regularly, but that person neglects the job so entirely that the tree expires before we make it to Christmas, that is a sin for which he might be forgiven.
But say someone is under a cloud of dread and guilt because it has occurred to him that he doesn’t know whose job it is to water the tree, but he knows that he hasn’t done it and he suspects that no one else has. During the day when he’s out and about he worries that the desiccated tree has caught fire and that he will return to find his house burned to the ground and, worst of all, Christmas ruined.
But two significant facts pertain to our anxious fellow. First he was not negligent in the fulfilment of an obligation. And, secondly, the tree was fake (he was more anxious than perceptive.)
In such a case the poor fellow doesn’t require forgiveness, but absolution, a removal of guilt by a rejection of fault.
We must be careful of absolution. It should be a crime to withhold absolution from anyone to whom you might offer it. But it should also be a crime to offer absolution anywhere that forgiveness is more in order. When I sin and come to you with my excuses for that sin, be very critical of those excuses. I, like most of us, have a bad habit of asking for sympathy when what I need is grace, asking you to agree with me that I’m not really at fault, because I crave vindication.
But if you accept my excuses and shush my nagging guilt you are helping me build up a wall to keep out grace, because, after all, what would I need grace for if it wasn’t really my fault?
So, yes, we must be careful with absolution. But we mustn’t be stingy with it.
Satan would prefer to lead you into sin. But he will gladly satisfy himself with crippling you with misplaced guilt. He’d like to see you in prison for a crime you committed, but he will chortle if you make yourself an inmate at home without the help of any prosecutor.
Absolution is well called for at times, and perhaps never more so than at Christmas.
I, like the angels outside of Bethlehem, have come to bring you good news.
You are not a consumer, not a shopper. God did not bring you into existence because he thought you’d be good for the economy. What you are is a child of God whose body, with its need for sleep and nourishment and recreation, has been sanctified by the fact that God himself shared our physical condition in the person of Jesus Christ. Take a deep breath with lungs that will one day breathe the air of heaven, and reject the pressures that would reduce you to a mere component of the global economy.
You have not been given the assignment to make Christmas perfect. Not by God, in any case. If there are people in your life who really feel that you ought to be making things perfect (and perhaps there are) they are wrong to do so. You no doubt would like for things to be perfect, and your disappointment is legitimate. I sympathize with you and am lamenting disappointments of my own. But guilt? No. We reject it.
And what of the moving goalposts of “enough?” There will not be enough this Christmas. There will never be enough. Not enough time in pajamas, not enough gifts under the tree, not enough holiday frivolity. “Enough” is elusive and unattainable and the guilt you feel about it is misplaced. You might just as well feel guilty about walking all day and never arriving at the horizon.
And it is not your job to read from the holiday script, to wear a mask of giddy pleasure, to dance when commercial interests pull on your puppet strings. If you haven’t got it in you, there is no fault in that. Spurn the director, wipe off the makeup, dismount from the stage; you’re free from the obligation to play the part.
I’m offering you Christmas absolution, merry Christmas! Please accept it. It’s sweeter than eggnog, and more nourishing than figgy pudding. Take it. Nibble, then chew, then gulp great mouthfuls. Be at liberty and celebrate the birth of our Savior in a state of perfect peace.
Furnace Brook Wesleyan Church Blog